August 7, 2012 2:40 pm

Overheard at Iftar: deals and dining

A huddle formed next to the row of ornate marble sinks, where men in their traditional white robes washed their hands, rolling up their crisp sleeves after the late-night feast.

Three men in dark grey suits had the sheikh surrounded. Close to his face, they got their moment to utter in lowered voices their predicament or business need, which only he could hear.

“They always catch me,” the Abu Dhabi ruling family member later joked, making light of the constant stream of people seeking financial help, government doors to be opened or investments to be considered.

For anyone wanting to do big business in the Gulf, befriending a well-placed insider is the ultimate facilitator. But going about that, for the shiny teethed, smart-suited investment bankers, is not so simple.

As Ramadan sets in, the fawning reaches a peak in the region, where ruling families and their trusted aides tend to keep a tight hold over the purse strings of the state and its closely-linked private sector.

Expatriate bankers, lawyers and diplomats alike know that Ramadan, a time when fasting in daylight hours is followed by long nights of entertaining, is the time to pay their respects to the region’s royalty.

During the holy month, many of the Gulf ruling family members expound their generosity with large Iftar meals, to break the daylight fast. Later in the evening, they will offer another spread at the sohour meal, which continues long into the night.

The food, of course, is a spectacle in itself. Slow-cooked whole baby camels, lambs and other delicacies pile high on beds of yellowed biryani rice. Cauldrons of cement-like meat paste and sweet bread pudding clutter the sea of dining tables.

Aside from the tempting meals, the crucial point for business folk is that the region’s top brass is physically in the Gulf during Ramadan, and usually for the whole month. At other times of year, their roles as investors, ministers, leisure-seekers and rulers mean they spend much of the time on helicopters and private planes, traversing the globe.

Pinning them down for that much-needed signature is not always easy.

But getting deals done in Ramadan is not the reason for expatriate business people to stick around amid the fierce summer heat that lesser types may flee. Despite the presence of the powers that be, sealing a deal can become more difficult, as working hours are shortened and bureaucracy slows.

The key, instead, is to show your face, thus laying the important groundwork for closing whatever business needs to be done after Ramadan.

“It’s like public relations,” one attendee says at a recent late-night meal hosted by a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. Whether it’s braving the chilli sauce, smoking the shisha or eating another morsel of food, guests must be on their best behaviour. For newcomers, royal protocols can be both bemusing and intimidating.

One banker recalls a gathering in Saudi Arabia, where a senior financier took a junior member of his team to a prominent prince’s late-night meal.

The young man, keen to make a good impression, was told to make sure he finished every scrap of food on his plate. Each time the plate was emptied, the prince, practising the famed Arabian hospitality, piled more meat on top, which the guest would work his way though, with increasing difficulty. Eventually, the prince asked: “what is going on with this guy?”

At that point the senior financier boomed: “stop being so greedy,” he said to the poor, bloated young banker.

Once protocols are understood, the reality quickly dawns that during the sumptuous Ramadan meals, business is rarely discussed in detail. A reminder to follow up on this or that issue may be thrown into the conversation, but generally, as the group tucks into their plates, conversation sticks to pleasantries or the day’s news. Veteran guests often sit in silence as they finish their mountain of food.

It is on the margins – the short walk to leave the venue the trip to wash the hands, or the brief departing pleasantries – where the newcomers have their chance to make an impression.

As one veteran banker says: “It’s the one time they have to say ‘remember me!’”

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